Where I work there are no conflicts

In an interview for a position as a narrative director, I was asked what I would do if there were conflicts in the team about individual preferences. I could tell by their looks that they didn’t believe me when I replied that there are no conflicts where I work. To explain what I meant, I´d like to straighten out the concept of conflicts.

One could say that there are two kinds of conflicts: contrasts and confrontations. Confrontations are the ones that you should let the law and courts take care of. Contrasts, which the text focuses on, are related to our learning and how we understand events differently depending on our prior experiences and knowledge (which in turn relates to our culture and social contexts).

For a narrative constructor, it’s essential to understand conflicts; otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to create them (in fiction). Even if a narrative constructor could (if they want) be a threat to the harmony at work by the knowledge how to propel a conflict, they hardly indulge in conflicts. Since the goal is to create a meaningful experience, the expectations can’t be built unless a goal is reciprocally shared. So when people start to vote by show of hands, which idea to choose, it is a warning signal for the narrative constructor that the goal might not be shared, nor are the expectations. It is most likely that it will rub off on those who are supposed to take part in the experience – the players, viewers, readers, etc.

So the question is how to understand how prior experiences and knowledge can influence a team so conflicts can be avoided (without ending up as an autocracy)?

Once upon a time, I was working with an electrician that was very tired of people that had opinions about his cables that had to be lead all over the place without interfering. Because of the fact that we were independent filmmakers, and due to the high costs eliciting a film, meticulous planning was needed before the shooting since we couldn’t afford more than two takes per scene. When shooting a scene of the actor walking through the room I see (through the lens) how the actor makes a strange evasive move, but with a maintained speed as to not make it show on the screen. From the perspective of saving money, the actor’s move was impressive, but from a director’s point of view, the electrician had just taken over my job.

Why the situation didn’t end up with an electrician hijacking the whole production by making the whole team obey his cables was due to the shared experience and knowledge in the team. This, in turn, made everyone want to find a solution since the premise of the film wasn’t about an electrician and his cables.

A premise is a key to reach the vision, which follows the project from the ideation phase until the final piece is nailed. A premise can be seen as a lighthouse on a big ocean, which helps the skippers to navigate. The setting of a premise is one of the key elements of the method Narrative bridging, whose purpose is to assist in reaching a reciprocally shared and meaningful goal. The setting of a premise and a goal also allows for different experiences and knowledge to come forth. Instead of being a cause of conflicts, they can be seen as possibilities to understand events from new perspectives. If everyone in a team is aware of how the premise and goal work from the very beginning, one can also avoid situations that can cause strains on limited resources (even people’s health).

To explain what I mean I´d like to present Cat, Vlad, and Nick that are in the ideation phase of developing a game. The premise (!) is set to be a game about a bouncing egg that shall travel through the evolution of life without hatching. The goal (!) is to create a casual and relaxing mobile game with a nice bouncing feeling from the egg.

So let’s look at the discussion between Cat, Vlad, and Nick:

As you can see, it´s a little tense between Cat, Vlad, and Nick. But by knowing their professions, it might be easier to detect how their prior experiences and knowledge come into play.

From knowing a little bit more about Cat, Vlad and Nick we can tell that Cat, the game designer, was trying to keep track of the premise and goal of having a nice bouncing feeling of an egg that travels through the evolution of life avoiding to hatch. Nick, the graphic designer, suggests a new angle to the idea by suggesting balloons instead of an egg as to ensure that all possibilities have been considered. Since the programmer, Vlad, has already worked on a solution to make a bouncing ball into a spherical bouncing egg the suggestion about balloons makes Vlad feel that Cat and Nick don’t understand the scale of changing objects from the perspective of programming.

It´s definitely not easy to detect conflicts when prior experiences and knowledge clashes but since none of them, Cat, Nick or Vlad, are stupid, there is a way to make them show what they mean and avoid contrasts in their understanding of one another:

If you have noticed the color-scheme that is used on this site, it´s not a coincidence. What the colors stand for are the categories from which one speaks, and are based on a set premise and goal (which this site also has).

– Orange stands for possibilities employing new perspectives on an idea.
– Purple refers to construction (hands-on)
– Green represents the constructor´s position and perspective

So what happens if Cat, Vlad, and Nick would show from which perspective they are speaking (constructor, construction, or possibilities), it would be a lot easier to understand that Nick just wanted to forward a new possibility (idea). Vlad could tell from the perspective of programming (construction) that he likes to explain what it means to make a flying balloon bounce. It would also be a lot easier for Cat that has the responsibility from her position as a game designer (constructor) to keep track of the big picture (set by the premise and goal) to understand that Nick was just trying a new idea that wasn’t really thought out. For the whole team, it would be a lot easier to evaluate and decide whether the premise should be changed due to a new idea if everyone is given a chance to compare the different consequences and options. Since if the desired goal was to create a nice and relaxing feeling when playing, maybe the balloons would serve the vision better than an egg. That is up to the team to decide – and the sooner, the better.

Since the game industry, as well as the film industry, is the most expensive place to host a “conference” where people exchange and negotiate their personal beliefs and desires, the key to avoiding eventual contrasts and confrontations during production is to make sure the premise, vision and desired outcome are thoroughly deliberated and shared from the beginning of production. Many companies do this already. But since conflicts do appear it’s good to know the reason and purpose of the premise and a goal from a cognitive perspective as it can save a lot of headaches – including the “receivers’ heads”. What the premise actually does is to build expectations and if the agreement is breached by not deliver what is promised, someone will get disappointed. As there is always a risk that someone will get disappointed the premise should relate to the desired experience (goal) and where all other things as resources, electrician’s cables, etc., should be seen as constraints. And if someone worries about running out of money and likes to set the desired outcome to “earn money” the difficulty it causes to the experience is that the goal is not shared with the ”receivers”, unless they will also be included in the goal to earn money (or lead electricity through cables). So if one truly likes to engage people in a meaningful experience, the desired goal has to make sense to everyone – the team and the receivers.

Katarina Gyllenbäck

Illustrations by Emese Lukács

PS About the method (Narrative bridging) and the color scheme that was used in the example, it should be seen from wherein the phase of development the team was. Later on in the process, when the premise and goal are settled, and the making of the game is a fact, you will know if you are on track if it looks like below. It’s then that you’ll have Narrative bridging working at its full capacity.

Recommended readings:

Part 2, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective I
Part 3, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective II

Recommended literature about narrative, contrasts, and metacognition:

Bruner, J (1996). The culture of education. By the President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1996.


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